How My Queer Femme Identity Is Shaped By Feminism

by Jacy Topps

I identified as a feminist long before I came out as gay. My introduction to feminism was through the second-wave movement — Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. And while feminism helped me understand patriarchy, gender roles and oppression, the relationship between feminism and lesbianism has been a tumultuous one. The feminist movement was pretty hostile to lesbians during the 1960s. Not all women within the movement had such intolerant and homophobic views against lesbians, but some in the leadership did. Author and President of the National Organization for Women (NOW) Betty Friedan didn’t want feminism equated with lesbians. Not only did she deem lesbians the “Lavender Menace,” she even went so far as to delete references of prominent lesbian organizations from the program for the First Congress to Unite Women. More times than not, feminism was seen through the lens of cisgender, middle-class, heterosexual white women and lacked intersectionality.

Just as second-wave feminists had inclusion problems with lesbians, the lesbian feminist movement was having its very own inclusion problems with femmes. The dominant stereotype in the straight community was that lesbians were supposed to be masculine; this stereotype was even prominent in the queer community. Female masculinity in the feminist lesbian community was celebrated because it defies patriarchal binary gender norms. This view is still very prevalent in the queer community today. Femme-presenting lesbians were constantly rendered “not gay enough” and accused of perpetuating the patriarchy for their desire to wear makeup, dresses and heels.

Because of these complicated factors, when I came out, I refused to identify as a femme — for fear of reinforcing gender norms because feminism teaches you to defy them rather than reinforce them, and fear of invisibility within the gay community. But it wasn’t until a well-meaning straight friend decided to let me know that my new queer-looking haircut wasn’t appealing, that I decided that looking queer was exactly what I wanted to look like.

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I didn’t like the idea that “looking gay” was not appealing. I was supposed to embrace my heteronormative-femininity and blend. But I’m a feminist, and feminism rejects the idea that there is any part of our genders and sexualities that should be policed or dictated by other people’s expectations. So from then on, identifying as a black, gay femme was going to be a source of pride — pride in my intersectional feminism. To be clear, I’m not femme simply because I’m feminine. It is a transgressive, political act of rejecting the white supremacist patriarchy. My femme-ness is the rejection that appearing queer is not attractive. Heterosexuals don’t own femininity; so it is the rejection of femininity being strictly tied to heterosexuality. Identifying as a queer femme is about the repudiation of a culture that deems femininity as little more than a product for the consumption of heterosexual white men.

On the other hand, my femme-ness is also a repudiation that queerness is always manifested in a masculine way; femininity and femme-ness are not inferior. It’s the affirmation that femininity can be just as bold, strong, and powerful as masculinity. And it affirms that femme lesbians are just as queer as butch and androgynous queer women. The queer community is not a monolithic. We have various sexual orientations, genders and gender expressions. We have different styles and preferences — all femmes don’t look alike.

Identifying as femme and navigating through both straight and queer worlds can sometimes be challenging. Having to “come out” regularly because you don’t “read” as gay while simultaneously finding ways to “appear” gay in the queer community is daunting, and what many femmes go through. In an effort to prevent the erasure of queer femme identities, femmes are building their own communities with blogs, books, and documentaries to share their stories. Hi Femme! — DapperQ’s sibling visibility project — is a new platform highlighting and celebrating the stylish contributions femmes make to queer fashion. Editor in Chief Anita Dolce Vita said, “I fully believe that leveraging style to dismantle oppressive binaries is congruent with my feminist values. However, when DapperQ started in 2009, I began to notice that queer fashion media, designs and conversations that celebrated masculinity were proliferating at the expense of femme visibility.” So she created a space for femmes. Hi Femme! isn’t the only platform. Autostraddle has also been highlighting queer femmes for years. Feminism is rooted in dismantling heteronormative patriarchy, inclusion, freedom from oppression, and having agency and autonomy over our own bodies and choices; so my queer femme identity is one of my most authentic feminist expressions.

Photos courtesy Jacy Topps
Published June 21, 2017

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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